Original is best: the Fiat Panda at 40

| 3 Nov 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Original is best: the Fiat Panda at 40

Somewhere in my house is a very elegant, very expensive pair of scissors which I’m informed by those with a deeper knowledge of etiquette than mine are called ‘fruit scissors’.

They live in their own felt-covered, silk-lined case. I’ve never used them, and never will, but I understand that in polite circles they’re used for snipping off parts of a bunch of grapes – before you stuff said morsels into your cakehole.

The point is, they came from Fiat. They were a prize jointly won by me and another journalist, Peter Robinson, at the launch of the second generation Fiat Panda in Italy in about 2002.

The company badly wanted to make a point about the little car’s excellent fuel economy (it has been a running theme for 40 years), so set hacks against one another in an economy run, in teams of two. I was Robbo’s co-driver – and because we tried hard we beat them all, and waltzed triumphantly home with the fruit scissors.

Classic & Sports Car – Original is best: the Fiat Panda at 40

The Panda was built to be tough

It was a continuation of a love affair I’ve had with the Fiat Panda since 1980, when the superbly sweet and simple original edition popped out of Giorgio Giugiaro’s remarkable imagination.

And we’re celebrating the model’s 40th birthday in the November 2020 issue of Classic & Sports Car.

Within a year or two of that launch it became possible for me to stand in the viewing room of Giuigaro’s famous Ital Design studio with the great man himself, while he explained how much the little car meant to him.

We were surrounded by much more ornate, more expensive, more complex concepts, but it was immediately clear how much he cared.

“We tried to give it the essential quality of military design,” he’d often say, and said again on that occasion, but there was also an all-over chic about the Panda that no soldier ever knew or appreciated. 

Classic & Sports Car – Original is best: the Fiat Panda at 40

Simplicity was and is key to the appeal of the original Panda

The best thing, I always thought, was that simple face. The lack of any grille except for a modest array of vertical louvres set asymmetrically between the two rectangular headlights.

And, thinking about it, that’s about the only car I can recall whose oblong headlights really worked.

Of course, it was fun to drive. Light, underpowered, and always ready to roll the body into corners, but easy to drive because of the light steering and small wheel.

I only ever drove the four-cylinder version (there was a cheaper twin), and most enjoyed the crude 4x4 whose all-wheel ability had to be selected manually, and never mind the pretty awful tyre scrabble in tight turns on Tarmac if you forgot to disconnect.

After that meeting with ‘George’ I always wondered what he made of the 1986 facelift, when some happily forgotten Torinese high-up decided all Fiat models including the Panda needed a corporate face, so they plastered the formerly glorious front with a routine slatted grille with five obliquely mounted bars running across its centre.

They ‘ritzified’ the gloriously simple interior, too, and the model’s sales did better, I believe, but I really didn’t want to hear that.

Classic & Sports Car – Original is best: the Fiat Panda at 40

The second-gen Panda was rather short-lived

The Panda wasn’t often changed. Indeed, we’re still only in the third major body iteration after 40 years, though there have plenty of minor rethinks along the way.

As a road tester, we didn’t drive Pandas all that often because they didn’t change much, but I can remember one time caning an early 4x4 along the M4 motorway at 67mph, pretty much top whack, wondering if its engine was going to explode. It didn’t: Fiats were always made to be used hard.

The second-generation model – the ‘fruit scissors’ edition – was successful but rather boring.

It sold well on its practicality, initially, but a waning of interest is one reason why it was fairly soon replaced by the third-generation model we still have today.

Given that the first edition lasted 23 years, the second one’s miserable eight-year life (to 2011) firmly showed that it lacked the original’s star quality.

Classic & Sports Car – Original is best: the Fiat Panda at 40

‘Tough but cute’ is how our man describes the latest iteration

We were all excited when the current, third-generation model bobbed up – for three reasons. With its curvaceous bonnet and practical, boxy body it looked tough but cute.

It was pretty roomy but still small, in an era when everything was getting fatter. And its arrival was accompanied by the headline-grabbing 900cc turbo TwinAir engine. I can remember engine boss Paolo Martinelli striding into the launch tech talk carrying the tiny engine block in his arms.

Best of all, the inevitable 4x4 version had been given permanent all-wheel drive and decent on-road performance. Plus a six-speed gearbox with a ‘crawler’ first to make up for the lack of a transfer box and a lot of much lower ratios. Your very own quarter-sized Range Rover…

The TwinAir was amazingly compact and very reliable (my family currently owns a Fiat 500 TwinAir, still in rude health at 85,000 miles), but it was never front-rank for throttle response, and the claims they made for economy – I’ve forgotten the detail, but there were preposterous boasts of 80-odd mpg – were laughable. And yet…

I had a Panda TwinAir for a year as my office car and absolutely loved it. It must have been around 2012, back when practically every car launch meant a day-trip to Germany, Italy or France.

I grew to dislike these, especially the trips home, which always seemed interminable. But I’d sit there, thinking of my little Panda TwinAir in the Heathrow car park, ready to thrum into life in its cheerful and friendly way when I turned the key, and all seemed better. 

Classic & Sports Car – Original is best: the Fiat Panda at 40

Not owning an original Fiat Panda is a regret for our Cropley

There was something about driving the car that was a true challenge – not in a high performance, staying-on-the-road kind of way, but geared to its need for neatly timed caresses of the controls (both hands and feet) if you were to get decent, smooth progress out of the car. Others of its ilk seemed a bit too easy and obvious to drive.

My best moments always seemed to be in Panda 4x4s. Soon after the 2012 4x4 launch I was invited to an Italian ski resort in winter, to try the little car’s traction in snow.

The conditions were tough. So much so that Fiat’s people decided they’d let us drive two-thirds of the way up an icy route to a mountain-top restaurant, but reserve the last miles for a trip in a snowcat, one of those tracked people-carriers you see traversing the Antarctic.

We did that, but arrived at the restaurant early so busied ourselves chucking snowballs at one another and taking photographs of the magnificent scenery.

Presently there was a puny, buzzing sound, far away but getting closer. We listened and watched, and around the bend buzzed a first-gen Panda, with four people packed inside – the manager, the chef, the head spud-basher and a waiter.

Their battered Fiat original, admittedly wearing proper snow tyres, was clearly used for this trip every day, driving where our latest-spec models feared to tread. It was a good lesson about driving skill and appropriate tyre choice.

There are some cars you kick yourself for not owning and the original, flat-screen, no-grille Panda 4x4 is high on my list. Sadly, most have long since returned to earth as red oxide, but the desire remains and it isn’t going away any time soon.

Images: Haymarket Automotive

Read our full tribute to the Fiat Panda on its 40th anniversary in the November 2020 issue of Classic & Sports Car


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